Five Ways To Empower Older Workers & Volunteers In The Modern Workplace

Adapted and reposted from True Charity.

Editor’s Note: Many ministry organizations, and certainly churches, rely on volunteers to keep their work running smoothly. Some of the best, most faithful volunteers and staff are those who no longer have young children at home and might be retired (or close to it). But these men and women face some challenges operating in a faster-paced, technology-based workplace. How can we help them serve well?

I became an “older” woman overnight. Let me explain: for fifteen years, I lived in a community with a median age of 65—Naples, Florida. I celebrated my 40th birthday just weeks after moving there.

In the church where we served, we had several parental figures, and our children had plenty of “grandparents” to fill the voids of our parents’ early passings. Our experience in that city was priceless.

Then, God called us to Austin. Median age 35. I was no longer a younger woman. Not by a long shot. Everywhere I went, I not only felt like a parent—I felt like a grandparent!

With this move, I said goodbye to my lifelong teaching career and jumped into the Christian nonprofit world. While I had served alongside my husband in church ministry for years, the nonprofit space was new territory for me. I faced quite a few learning curves.

Thankfully, I had kept up with the ever-changing digital arena, teaching with current techniques and platforms, and this saved me. If I had not, the transition to my new job—and probably any office job—would have been impossible.

That’s when I realized the depth and scope of the obstacles many older workers (OWs) and volunteers must overcome in nonprofits and churches. Even though these organizations are not usually set up as typical office spaces, today’s digital communication, workflows, and systems often keep OWs from being able to contribute their experience, well-honed skills, and innate giftings.

Many OWs and volunteers retired before the Internet became vital to work. Email was not part of office culture for much of their working lives and neither were cell phones. Even though they might use their cells regularly now, their dexterity and eyesight are not what they used to be, so texting is cumbersome. Many of my peers resent being labeled “incapable” because they have never been exposed to certain digital platforms, and they are flabbergasted at the lack of respect, deference, and discretion shown to older employees and clients.

So what can we do to free OWs and volunteers to use their experience and giftings in the most productive ways possible? Here are five ideas.

1. Train older workers and volunteers well on the front end so they won’t need to ask for repeated help.

Many OWs and volunteers have successful careers behind them. They were CEOs, lawyers, teachers and principals, doctors and dentists, missionaries and ministers, stay-at-home moms who were community “movers and shakers,” etc. Feeling like they’re starting over by asking for help all the time can be humiliating and exasperating.

Many older workers tend to have more “crystalized intelligence” and less “fluid intelligence” than their younger peers. In other words, they know more, but they learn new things at a slower rate. This is easy to overcome as long as you budget a little extra time to train them on new tasks. The small investment of additional training time will be more than compensated by the lifetime of prior knowledge they bring to the table.

Try to predict potential stumbling blocks. If it’s a new digital platform for them, provide easy-to-understand tutorials, and try to designate people to help them. Communicate—before they begin—where help can be found (online, a folder, a guidebook, etc.). Don’t assume that they can just “Google it” or look up a YouTube video.

2.  Make it clear that you and your organization both respect their experience and understand generational differences.

Experience really is a great teacher. We all know that knowledge is valuable, but the wisdom to apply knowledge—usually gained through experience—is even more valuable.

Listen to your OWs and volunteers for informed advice in approaches, direction, what will work long-term, and what won’t. Seek their help for more than “the small things.” Remember where they have been, and work that into your conversations about organizational vision and processes.

Even if they don’t appear to be “getting it,” don’t assume age is necessarily the cause. Last year I had a conversation with one of my sons-in-law, who is only 26. He had just started a new job, and although he enjoyed it, he was quite stressed. He told me, “I’m using a platform that I’ve never used before, so it’s like I’m having to communicate in a foreign language.” Picture a 65-year-old employee or volunteer. They might be asked to learn a dozen or more “new languages” in a single day. How hard would that be for you?

3.  Communicate in ways that ensure productivity.

Each generation has their communication preferences. OWs value person-to-person communication; they can languish under the obstacles of texts, emails, and instant messages. They prefer good old-fashioned phone calls, despite the fact that many younger workers fear them. OWs appreciate voicemail, and they will be disappointed if you don’t answer when they call back. If remote positions are at play, make sure they know how to execute everything Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet requires. Helping them access basic tutorials will make a huge difference.

Remember that language is dynamic, changing over time. Slang words do not mean the same for OWs as they do for Gen Z-ers. Both sarcasm and catchphrases can be tricky. GIFs are just plain weird to many Baby Boomers—and the ones they send back (if they know how) are not always understood by their younger co-workers. Also, emails and texts cannot connote proper tone in most cases.

4.  Help them discover digital “secrets.”

I’m amazed at the seemingly insignificant digital “secrets” people don’t know about. While teaching a workshop recently, a young lady (probably in her 20s) was struggling to enter the code for the wifi in the teaching hall because it was all capital letters. I had to show her the “secret” of double tapping the caps key on her phone to initiate caps lock. She was amazed.

Now consider how many of those “secrets” are hidden from your OWs and volunteers—not to mention your older clients and neighbors. Here are just a few:

  • Clicking the logo on an organization’s web page to go to its homepage.
  • Using the microphone in lieu of the keypad for texts.
  • How to screenshot, download, or save an image, then how to find it on their computer.
  • Showing them that those “blue underlined words” are links to other resources. (This takes younger people by surprise, but it’s true.)
  • Opening a link in a new tab.
  • Navigating YouTube: to slow the speed of a video; using the spacebar to pause; using the scroll bar and chapter markings to access specific sections.

5.  Foster an environment for enthusiasm.

Nothing kills enthusiasm in a volunteer quicker than their time being wasted. If they leave your ministry feeling like they accomplished nothing, you can bet they will think twice before returning. A similar response happens in older paid employees: dread takes the place of eagerness as they face each work day, affecting productivity and overall morale.

Ensure that someone is personally investing in each OW or volunteer. Ask about their pasts and their dreams. Tell them about yourself and find common ground. You might be surprised at how motivated they are to serve your organization, and how inspired you are by their lives.

Older workers and volunteers are often the heart and soul of our organizations. Let’s ensure they are thriving so that the people they serve will benefit from their experience, gifts, and dedication.

Sonya Stearns

Sonya Stearns

Sonya Stearns serves as the network manager for True Charity. She and her husband, Dr. Todd Stearns, live in Austin, Texas, where he is the worship pastor at Austin Baptist Church, and she assists in leading the adult choir rehearsals. They have 3 married, young adult children who live in Texas, Indiana, and Florida.


  1. Steve Lyon on June 3, 2024 at 10:11 am

    Tremendous article. Insightful and well done. Well worth the read.

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